Insights from the viable system model for developing my own system and ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’

I recently mentioned to a group of students that I used the viable system model to develop my own personal system, incorporating my own personal development. They asked me to show them what I did and this is the session that I ran for them. It is not a refined session but more of a talk through of what I did, why and what insights it gave me. I also describe how the insights from my work of 15+ years with the viable system model, and particularly the work on developing my own personal system, turned into the building blocks for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach to making change and supporting systems change.

You can watch the video of the session on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXobE_5x9r8&t=10s

What does the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach do for you?

It is a bottom up approach that is human centred and aims to bring humanity back into your work and working relationships. It helps you to organise for learning and adaptability. It gives principles and ideas that open up options for you, so that you can structure, coordinate, communicate and make decisions in relation to your own context. It helps you to monitor for system health. It also takes into account the value proposition between different parts of your system and helps you orchestrate value between stakeholders.

It helps you to consider how you spot new trends and things you might need to respond to. How you bring that information into the organisation and prepare for the future. It helps you to consider alternative governance arrangements. It helps you to scale the approach by repeating it at different levels, from a single person up to a whole place and beyond.

What kinds of organisation is the approach applicable to? All organisations. I first developed this approach on a single individual. I then used it on teams, services, departments and to consider whole organisations. I have used it in private industry, public services, charities and voluntary groups. It is particularly useful for those working on systems change in a place. It helps you to consider the conditions for change that might enable and support systems change.

Copyrighted in 2019, after a number of years of use, my approach is built on my experiences of my work with Stafford Beer’s viable system model for 15 years. My work and approach is a creative interpretation of this model. As I applied the model in multiple contexts, I started to capture the things that people actually ‘did’ when the model worked well for them. Adding to it over the years has led to the development of this approach in an incremental way, based on my actual experiences.

New, updated, workshop materials were developed in 2019 so that I could share the approach with others more easily and they could use it themselves. There is now a supporting booklet and 120 action cards to help people apply this approach for themselves.

Can we buy the materials? I have sold them to people in the past, but the main distribution of my materials is via my workshops and my consultancy practices directly with organisations. It is always much better to set the context and work with people on how to use the materials, if they are to get the best out of them.

In 2022, a new updated booklet, infographic and actions cards will be the main kit for my consultancy practices and workshops.

If you are interested, please get in touch: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Do you want to know what it’s REALLY like to be a systems practitioner?

I have just watched Manhunt on ITV player, for the third time. Yes, the third time. I was watching for something specific with each viewing. If you want to know what it is really like to be a systems practitioner, watch it and keep your eye on the main character, Colin Sutton.

Systems practitioners aren’t consultants who come into your organisation with fancy approaches and ‘sprints’. They aren’t the ones trying to wow you to get themselves more business. Systems practitioners are the ones who, on a daily basis, overcome every barrier that Colin Sutton’s character had to overcome in those two series, particularly the one about Levi Bellfield.

Systems practitioners zoom into every detail and check it out from a human perspective. Not from a ‘computer says’ perspective. They live it and breathe it. They step into the shoes of others and walk it. They see through the eyes of others as well as their own. They go through every aspect of a situation and fully experience it for themselves. They do not cut corners. They painstakingly explore and keep exploring when everyone else has given up. They zoom out and see the bigger picture. They are not deterred by a boundary drawn on a map. They say to themselves, ‘What would a human being do here?’ They experience it. They feel it. Every inch of it.

They have to get past the doubters. They hurdle the blockers and the sceptics. They allow them to have their say but never lose their own focus. Why? Because they work from the heart. From their mature instincts as well as the theories and approaches they know inside and out.

They stand up to game players. They call them out, no matter what the consequences for themselves. They have courage. Boat loads of courage. Why? Because they believe in what they are doing.

True systems thinkers don’t ‘do’ systems thinking. They live it. It is one of their habits.

Watching the series, the first time round, I was fascinated by the stories and there was something else I could not quite put my finger on. Watching second time round I could see it plain as day. I recognised the barriers, the hurdles, the doubters, the game players, the human errors, the reliance on processes that did not work. I also recognised that what worked was a thorough understanding of people and the ability to think in a way that was not clouded by the lack of resources, the poor procedures, the human imposed barriers and boundaries. It was steeped in empathy and common sense. Third time round, I watched again to confirm whether or not I had seen what I thought I had seen.

What I saw was very familiar. Being a systems practitioner is like fighting that fight, when you might be the only one on board at first. The one who dares to step forward and the one who remains determinedly focussed, no matter who tries to knock you off track. No matter who wants to give up. No matter who wants to take an easier road. Nothing deters your determination to do the right thing.

It is not an easy journey to choose and only those who have truly chosen it will fully understand these parallels.

Delivery – it’s just about ‘getting it done’, isnt it?

No, I don’t think so. It can be so much more than that.

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. The way I work with it is to focus on what human beings actually do and I harness the potential of every person. The focus of this blog is delivery, or what those who know the viable system model call System 3.

Here is an extract from my booklet (this is a booklet that is given to attendees of my workshop, as part of the workshop kit):

‘This area of focus is about supporting the internal system to work effectively. We don’t just talk about resources and expected performance, though. We also aim to bring the humanity back into the work. One of the things we consider here is ensuring as many people as feasibly possible have been involved in decisions about how things will work and in setting goals, to prevent them feeling coerced. Remember that many people will also want their own professional values reflected in the work that they do. It is also important that once decisions have been made, you gain commitment to them.

Do not overload staff, though. They will never work at their best if they are in a state of frantic panic all day, every day. Aim for meaningful work for people. Make them feel good about themselves and make sure you consider their wellbeing. Trust your teams. Do not micro-manage. Remain hands off. Allow people to have their own peer to peer performance meetings. Let peers hold each other to account. Encourage them to share ideas to help the teams that are falling behind. Have a rolling host for the meetings, so no-one assumes ultimate power and/ or control. Give the teams the structure within which they can collaborate to enhance performance. Lead by example by demonstrating different behaviours and think about the language you use. Use language of encouragement that pushes people out of their comfort zone in a supportive way. Allow them to fail (within reason) and learn without embarrassment and punishment. Promote joint decision making throughout the system, so that effective prioritisation can occur. If you do have conflicts – and you are bound to have them – do not avoid them. Help people to use conflict creatively to listen to others’ points of view. Hold exploratory conversations, facilitate participation and listening.

Identify where there is confusion, conflict, disruption or chaos. These are not bad things but powerful indicators of places where you can intervene to make positive changes. They are opportunities. Do not complain about them, monopolise on them’.

The action cards

There are a number of action cards relating to this section. These are things we can do to enact this area of focus in reality. Here is an example of a few of them:

The skills required

My approach also outlines skills that are useful in enacting this section of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel. These are skills we could and should be advocating for and supporting in our organisations. Here is a taster of a few:

  • Coach
  • Supporter
  • Recruiter
  • Motivator
  • Prototyper
  • Trainer

Each section of my wheel goes through a similar format to the above. I outline important areas of focus and the questions we can ask ourselves about those areas. I go on, in the booklet, to talk about these key points, giving rationale for why they are important. My suggestions, which have been part of my copyrighted workshop kit for a number of years, have come from over 10 years of working with the viable system model in practice and the learning I have gained along the way. The key focus is on the development and support of each individual and harnessing their skills and talents to the full, encouraging them to work authentically and without fear.

The action cards tell us the things we can actually do, at each systemic level of our system (person, team, service, department, organisation, place) to enact the points mentioned.

Putting all six areas together gives a very powerful way of Creating the Conditions for Change in our working ecosystems. The focus is on what we can actually do to make a difference.

All materials are copyrighted and part of my consultancy and training kit. If you build on any of my ideas, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

Are you co-ordinating to bring about a paradigm shift?

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. The way I work with it is to focus on what human beings actually do and I aim to harness the potential of every person. The focus of this blog is co-ordination, or what those who know the viable system model call System 2.

Here is an extract from my booklet (this is a booklet that is given to attendees of my workshop, as part of the workshop kit)

‘Co-ordination is the vitally important, yet often-overlooked element of systems. It needs to be considered explicitly and not just expected to happen. I like to call it the ‘invisible glue’ – the things that hold everything together in a coherent way. This area of focus is about enabling feedback and information exchanges and effectively supporting interdependencies and interconnections. Ignore it at your peril! Get it right and it can significantly enhance your capacity and capability, often at very little or no cost. Do not under-estimate the value that getting this element right can bring.

One thing I have found to be extremely important in my work is something I have called ‘relationship-enablers’. These are the things you can put in place and/ or the mindset you can adopt that supports the dynamic connectedness in the system. The other extremely important thing here is what I call ‘interaction channels’ to enable collaboration. So, what are these things?

Relationship enablers are exactly how they sound. They are things that enable relationships. This can be as simple as a clause in a joint protocol that considers something from more than one point of view to something more elaborate, like a process for discussing and agreeing difficult decisions between a number of stakeholders. They are the things that give permission for the collaboration to occur. They can help to enable proactive dialogue, negotiation and agreements and enable relationships in the longer term.

Interaction channels might be mechanisms created to enable reflective conversations – do you ever have a joint meeting with another team/ department/ organisation specifically to reflect and learn from the work you do? Do you discuss problems and issues and seek to implement improvements together? Do you have a culture of positive challenge and learning? You can develop your internal structures so that people have enough freedom to enable collaborative working. Shadowing another team, for example, should not be seen as wasting time, but a valuable interaction channel and relationship enabler that can open up the support for ongoing collaboration and learning’.

The action cards

There are a number of action cards relating to this section. These are things we can do to enact this area of focus in reality. Here is an example of a few of them:

The skills required

My approach also outlines skills that are useful in enacting this section of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel. These are skills we could and should be advocating for and supporting in our organisations. Here is a taster of a few:

  • Storyteller
  • Information sharer
  • Facilitator
  • Relationship builder
  • Innovator
  • Networker
  • Enabler

Each section of my wheel goes through a similar format to the above. I outline important areas of focus and the questions we can ask ourselves about those areas. I go on, in the booklet, to talk about these key points, giving rationale for why they are important. My suggestions, which have been part of my copyrighted workshop kit for a number of years, have come from over 10 years of working with the viable system model in practice and the learning I have gained along the way. The key focus is on development and support of each individual and harnessing their skills and talents to the full, encouraging them to work authentically and without fear.

The action cards tell us the things we can actually do, at each systemic level of our system (person, team, service, department, organisation, place) to enact the points mentioned.

Putting all six areas together gives a very powerful way of Creating the Conditions for Change in our working ecosystems. The focus is on what we can actually do to make a difference.

All materials are copyrighted and part of my consultancy and training kit. If you build on any of my ideas, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

Creating the Conditions for Change – why monitoring, not measuring?

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. I have previously blogged about the importance I put on monitoring, or as those who know the viable system model, sub system 3*. The situations I work with are not always single organisations. More often than not, I work with situations that have input from many organisations. In these situations, my focus is on what I perceive to be ‘the system’ – a concept that I apply to the bounded situation I have identified.

From my booklet, in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach, I state that,

‘This area of focus is about monitoring your system, making it visible to itself and being able to see, understand and change the things that make the system work in a more innovative way. Traditionally, organisations use things like key performance indicators or operational targets. You might keep some element of those, or you may not be able to get rid of them completely. However, they are not the things that will tell you how healthy your system is. The trick here is to monitor the internal context for the advocated system characteristics and monitor for high quality’.

The monitoring I encourage has a specific focus. I do not only monitor to see how work activities are working. I monitor to see how healthy the work ecosystem is. Is there congruence between the system’s actual purposes and its vision? Is the system able to adapt, flex, pivot and respond to a changing environment quickly enough? Is new information being used as nourishment, rather than power? Is co-production happening as an ongoing process, rather than a one-off activity? Is the system able to reciprocate –  between people, between teams and  between organisations? Is the requirement for reciprocation written into any formal policies and is it actually happening? Are structures facilitating, rather than interfering?

I advocate for monitoring rather than measuring, initially. I take the meaning of monitoring to be that of observing. I take the meaning of measuring as assessing the importance or value of something. In my experience, it is when we jump to measuring that we do not engage fully enough in observation and, as a result, we can easily miss things. Measuring comes later for me. It comes when I gather together the information from other elements of the system also, and then consider importance and value.

A key skill that I advocate for here is that of the ‘system health check monitor’. It takes a skilled individual to be able to observe for system health.

Please note that materials are covered by copyright. Please act with integrity if you build on them and reference them appropriately.

The systemic levels of my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach

As you will have gathered by now, the approach I use, which has been the staple of my systems thinking and my business for a number of years is ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’. It is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model, focussed on people and supporting the skills, talents and potential of every human being to flourish. The central strategy of my approach is learning and adaptability. Like the viable system model, I scale by repeating my approach at every systemic level (a person, a team, a service, an organisation, across organisations). I do not focus on ‘making a change’ but on creating a more supportive ecosystem from which change can emerge.

The 2 over overarching diagrams representing my approach are as follows:

Here are some more insights from my Creating the Conditions for Change action cards, which are heavily used in my workshops.

If you are interested in my materials, do contact me directly.

At the level of the individual

  • Informal reciprocation arrangements between individuals
  • Building personal relationships with those outside of your immediate area of work
  • Learning how to self-reference and supporting each other’s abilities to self-reference
  • Let others know how you like to work and how you might work best with others
  • Peer support each other and engage in reflective conversations and learning together, rather than competing with each other
  • Be the system health check monitor
  • Consider your identity – is it aligned with the purpose of your role and your organisation?
  • Consider how the insights you bring can enhance the working environment

At the level of the team/ service/ organisation

  • Purposefully creating reciprocation arrangements between teams
  • Purposefully building relationships with teams with whom you could work in a complimentary way
  • Supporting teams to self-reference or, where appropriate, self-organise
  • Have an appropriate balance of specialist and generalist roles that give flexibility so that the team or service can be adaptable to change
  • Purposefully build into your daily routines ways to engage in reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
  • Ensure appraisals of staff praise for flexibility, sharing, helping others, forming relationships and reflective practices
  • Instigate monitoring practices that monitor for effective system characteristics
  • Develop rotas/ work plans etc that bring humanity back into working practices
  • Check your protocols do not disempower but support people if they want to empower themselves to take action
  • Devolve decision making to the appropriate people

At the multi-organisation level

  • Purposefully creating strategic reciprocation strategies across organisational boundaries
  • Purposefully building mutually beneficial relationships with other organisations
  • Developing structures that support departments, teams, cross organisational groups to self-reference and/ or self-organise
  • Support those who understand and implement systemic leadership practices
  • Monitor across organisational boundaries for system health
  • Bring a level of humanity back into expected performance levels
  • Ensure your policies do not hinder those who want to empower themselves to take action
  • Devolve decision making to the appropriate service/ department/ team

Skills for some of the above are that of coach, learner, supporter, activist, prototyper, contextualiser and  innovator.

The more we create the conditions for change at each systemic level, the more adaptability we might have when we do identify a change we want to make.

This is a small snapshot from only 10 of my 120 action cards that cover my approach. It took over 10 years of learning from using the viable system model in my work to convert elements of the model into ‘what people actually do when they enact this’. It is detailed, specific and my style is highly recognisable and appreciated by those with whom I use this approach.

I work both on site with groups to help them apply this approach to their own situation and I run workshops using a case study scenario to show how to apply the approach in detail.

This work is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and do not copy my materials without permission

Creating the Conditions for Change – the action cards

There are around 120 actions that go with my Creating the Conditions for Change approach. A note to those in the world of complexity, these actions are not ‘things you should do that will definitely make your system work better’. They are areas for consideration that can help you create the conditions for change that may support you in taking your identified next steps effectively.

The action cards are part of a copyrighted kit that I have used both for consultancy and in my Creating the Conditions for Change workshops for a number of years now.  They cover all sections of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel

Here are some examples from the kit:

Co-creating, considering self-organising/ self-referencing teams, peer to peer accountability and investigating and implementing change within the span of your autonomy

  • Explore, experiment, fail and learn using small-scale prototyping to enable a learning process
  • Make sure people know how to innovate if they want to
  • Consider purposes and how the world can be different because of you and your role
  • Align personal purposes with purposes of the wider system (where appropriate)
  • Connect through vulnerability and bring the humanity back into the work
  • Actively engage in reflective conversations to learn
  • Purposefully create reciprocation strategies with others

Co-ordinating, collaborating and supporting. Building communities, networks and collaborative relationships. Create internal system coherence.

  • Have open access to information (where relevant) and make sure information is nurturing, not being used for power
  • Understand and actively work with feedback loops
  • Ensure structures enable the ability to work collaboratively
  • Build in mechanisms to enable reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
  • Implement relationship enablers and interaction channels
  • Use stories as benchmarks about how your system is working

Deliver – bargaining for resources and managing performance. Bringing humanity and balance back into working relationships. Making joint decisions and goal setting around resources, performance and goals

  • Instigate different models of power and control so that operational staff feel empowered to act
  • Support others to enable themselves
  • Aim for meaningful work and wellbeing for all
  • Help people to push outside of their comfort zone
  • Allow autonomy, within relevant boundaries
  • Do not fight power imbalances. Turn them into something else
  • Change the nature of relationships
  • Purposefully build strategies of reciprocation
  • Form a culture of honesty and trust
  • Instigate positively orientated peer to peer performance management  and share ideas with anyone falling behind
  • Appraise for sharing, collaboration, supporting others and forming relationships

Monitoring – conducting system health check. Monitoring for signs of effective system characteristics. Monitoring for congruence between the systems and its vision.

  • If the system is suffering, look too see if it is lacking information about itself
  • Monitor the system’s ability to reciprocate. Build reciprocation strategies into protocols and strategies
  • Monitor the ability to flex, change, pivot and adapt over time
  • Monitor for congruence between the actual purposes of the system and its proposed vision

Adapt – trend spotting and fitting with a changing environment. Enabling pivoting. Building external relationships and gathering intelligence about the environment

  • Understand and purposefully use structural couplings
  • Scan the environment for new models of doing and bring the relevant elements back into your system
  • Make explicit external relationships and strategies of reciprocation

Shifting power, creating new structures and identifying identity. Identifying elements of joint vision, meaning, identity, purposes and goals. Devolving accountability and allowing autonomy. Seeking to ensure the old paradigm does not hinder the new

  • Ensure a sense of curiosity and innovation is fostered throughout the system
  • Check if the system is achieving intended purposes
  • Ensuring sharing of knowledge is inherent in the system
  • Critique system boundaries
  • Ensure a strong and appropriate identity
  • Actively critique your structure to make sure it is designed to create the conditions for change
  • Ensure there are policies to allow people to empower themselves, collaborate and build relationships and learn from each other
  • Instigate different power structures
  • Ensure no selfish goals predominate

These and many others are part of the Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials and my own personal approach.

All materials are covered by UK copyright. They should not be replicated in commercial approaches. If you use them, please act with integrity and reference appropriately.

Creating the conditions for change – VSM system 1 or co-creating?

To support my Creating the Conditions for Change workshop, a small booklet is available for attendees giving further insights into the suggestions given in the approach. It covers every section of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel, a graphic designed to show the six areas of focus that are important for us to consider.

The Wheel does not tell you specifically ‘how to do’ but it prompts you to ask questions about certain things. This can help you consider what moves you might want to take next to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’ in your work ecosystem. The same areas of focus are applied at multiple systemic levels – individual, team, department, organisation, cross organisation etc. I take my inspiration from Stafford Beer’s viable system model and my Creating the Conditions for Change approach is my creative interpretation of the viable system model and what it has taught me whilst using it for over ten years. (I started using in back in 2007) To note here is that I do not use it like a model to copy to make things better, but a model that points out things that we can focus on that can help us to Create the Conditions for Change.

One thing I always found lacking with the VSM was the focus on human behaviour and what we actually do, and this has been the main focus in my approach for many years, as a result. I have blogged about my journey with the viable system model many times over the years and a book is in progress to bring it all together into one place, to show the journey in detail.

The first area of focus is where we consider the operational things that we do and how we work together with others, both as individuals and as team. It is focussed on how we co-create together, with learning and adaptability as central important factors in the approach. There is a focus on triple loop learning throughout.

It is here where the approach tells us to consider whether self-organising or self-referencing teams are relevant to us. There is a reason for considering this. The following extract from the booklet tells us,

‘In operational teams there is a fine balance between allowing autonomy and having control. This is one area that needs exploring and an appropriate balance found. Teams should be able to make decisions, within reason, to enable them to respond to the complexity they face, without having to constantly consult with higher management. Devolved decision making, autonomy, authority to act and accountability are key things to consider here.

Teams should be allowed to, and able to, investigate and implement appropriate changes, within the boundaries of their autonomy. They should be able to engage in small scale prototyping of potential changes and be encouraged to be innovative.

One downfall of teams is that they can end up in competition with each other, which sometimes does not help but hinders the performance of the whole. Collaboration should be understood as being more valuable than competition (where appropriate) and peer to peer collaboration, particularly across traditional boundaries, should be encouraged.’

A longer summary is given in the booklet with further insights and participants also use a set of around 120 action cards which give further depth of suggestions that they might want to consider to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’. Actions focus on how we can push outside of our emotional comfort zones and support others to do the same. How we might engage in reflective conversations and change the nature of the relationships we have. This is where I bring my insights in from my case studies and share how I and others have worked on these things in the past. Considering our purposes and especially creating and re-creating our identity in line with our own ethics and values links particularly to my use of the viable system model at an individual level, a process I started doing in 2011 as part of an Open University course and have been sharing with others lately. I have been refining it when focussing on my own personal development ever since and it is a key element of enacting the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach. In the book I am writing I share how I did this bit by bit, year by year and the reasons why.

My suggestions do not just come from the case studies I have, although the thinking has often originated there. They also come from my own application of the viable system model and what that has taught me about making change. I have blogged about this area of focus many times. Most importantly, it has taught me about how human beings behave and what we might need to focus on to enable change, particularly in ourselves.

Please note that all materials on this website are copyrighted. Please act with integrity if you use anything and reference appropriately

Why I believe sub-system 3* monitoring, from the viable system model, should get more emphasis

System 3* monitoring

We tend to hear about system 3* as a monitoring system in viable systems. Done effectively by ad hoc audit and not part of the performance management process or communication. We rarely hear about its true power.

When developing my materials for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ suite a number of years ago, system 3* was an essential element of the work. My booklet urges people to monitor for effective system characteristics and also for congruence between how the system is truly working and how it says it is working.

Creating the conditions for change – Monitoring

Making the system work in a more innovative way, means we have to monitor different things. We are likely never to get rid of performance management and reporting and might always have to submit things like KPIs but system 3* is different. I encourage people to enact it by looking at how healthy the system is, monitoring the internal context for the advocated system characteristics and for the presence of happy and fulfilled people.

My booklet encourages people to check if internal structures are supporting or hindering the work, rather than interfering with it. I also encourage people to check if information is being used as a power tool, rather than nourishment.  To look to see if reciprocation is happening and that co-creation is happening across traditional boundaries.

I monitor to see how flexible processes and people are, whether they can adapt, pivot and make change in appropriate timescales. I monitor for the ability to ‘deep dive’ quickly if required. My accompanying action cards give options for all levels of the system from the individual to the multi organisation/ systems change levels.

My booklet also outlines skills that are useful to have in this kind of function. In particular, being a system health check monitor. It was examination of what system 3* monitoring could look like, over the course of 10+ years of using the viable system model in my work that prompted me to develop it quite far in my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ suite of materials and in my own systems thinking approach.

Creating the Conditions for Change – action cards with actions for monitoring functions

I am now heavily using system 3* monitoring in a piece of evaluation work, which has been ongoing for the last year and looking promising.

If you are interested in my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ materials, consultancy and training, please contact pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Please note that this text is from my copyrighted consultancy suite of materials and must be referenced appropriately if replicated. Please act with integrity if using any of my work.